A map to expansion: Understanding China’s ‘cartographic aggression’

As China’s territorial ambitions grow, its use of maps to stake claims is becoming increasingly provocative. This must be countered.

Published : Sep 21, 2023 11:00 IST - 11 MINS READ

At the India-China border in Bumla, Arunachal Pradesh. China has yet again created a diplomatic row by making territorial claims over Arunachal Pradesh in its latest map.

At the India-China border in Bumla, Arunachal Pradesh. China has yet again created a diplomatic row by making territorial claims over Arunachal Pradesh in its latest map. | Photo Credit: ANUPAM NATH/AP

China has consistently used maps to pursue its territorial claims in Asia, so much so that its 9-dash line has become emblematic over the past several years of the country’s ambitions of territorial expansion. A recent development in this regard triggered significant outrage, from Russia to Indonesia and from India to the Philippines.

On August 28, China released the latest version of its standard map, which showed several areas outside the country as part of its territory. The publication of this map led to concerns and protests by its neighbours.

This is not the first time that China has come up with such a map. The “additions” in the latest map provide a deeper insight into the country’s practice of “cartographic aggression” as well as its evolving outlook on its Lebensraum (living space).

China has historical and ongoing border disputes with almost all its neighbours. Currently, it has land border disputes only with India and Bhutan, but it has maritime territorial disputes with most, if not all, of its maritime neighbours: South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Brunei, and Malaysia. In addition, China considers independently ruled Taiwan as its own territory awaiting reunification.

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China’s maritime claims also overlap with those of Taiwan owing to their shared history. China’s territorial aggression has manifested itself violently several times in the past seven decades—vis-a-vis Taiwan, India, the erstwhile Soviet Union, Vietnam, and the Philippines (excluding China’s frontier regions of Tibet and Xinjiang).

China’s patterns of cartographic aggression mirror its evolving territorial claims. Its U-shaped 11-dash claim line over the South China Sea had its origins in a map published by the Republic of China government in 1948. The same was carried forward by the People’s Republic of China government after 1949. However, two lines from this were dropped after China gave up its maritime claim over the Gulf of Tongkin after an improvement in ties with Vietnam in 1952.

When the time came to submit its maritime claims to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 2009, China submitted the map with a 9-dash line clashing with the exclusive economic zones of many South-East Asian countries.

This has resulted in more than a decade of sustained tension in the South China Sea and single-handedly defined regional insecurity in South-East Asia.

With regards to India, China had never accepted India’s demarcation lines of the border. In the western sector, British India’s proposal of the Johnson-Ardagh Line, which ran along the Kunlun range and kept Aksai Chin within Indian territory, was not acceptable to Imperial China. In the eastern sector, Republican China rejected British India’s McMahon Line, which demarcates India’s border with Tibet on the basis of the watershed principle. Hence, ambiguity became the norm of the India-China border, and it continued to remain so even after India became independent and China underwent a revolution. The differences over the border were such that a resolution appeared distant even during the heights of the India-China friendship in the 1950s. After the India-China war in 1962, the Line of Actual Control (LAC), an informal ceasefire line, became the de facto border between India and China, with Aksai Chin coming under China’s control.

However, there is a lack of understanding on both sides to this day as to the exact alignment of the LAC, leading to unclear demarcation, differing perspectives, frequent transgressions, and occasional skirmishes.

It is in this historical setting that China’s cartographic aggression against India has to be located. China has consistently pushed its version of the border on its maps, wherein both Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh are shown within China’s borders.

Cartographic aggression

China’s cartographic aggression is not just limited to lines on the map; it extends to names too. China has, of late, been on a renaming spree of what it considers to be its border areas, but which are located within Indian territory. It has renamed a total of 32 places in Arunachal Pradesh in the past few years: six in 2017, 15 in 2021, and 11 in 2023; they include geographical features and human settlements.

Whether in the Western Pacific or in the Himalayan region, China establishes its own lines and labels on the map before reaching a negotiated settlement, and it uses the duration of negotiations to alter facts on the ground to match the pre-drawn lines.

On August 28, China’s Ministry of Natural Resources released the new standard map on its standard map services website. The website released 275 maps of China, 93 maps of the world, and 12 thematic maps as part of its standardisation for 2023.

Also Read | India and China caught in vicious cycle to secure the Himalayan heights

The Ministry also released two maps each of China and the world as self-help base maps for citizens and organisations to edit and use. However, it specified that the maps generated by self-help mapping “need to be submitted to the natural resources department for review before public use”, highlighting the tight control that the government has over the use of its standard maps. What has raised apprehensions in India about this publication is the fact that China is reiterating its claim over Arunachal Pradesh and the Aksai Chin plateau by incorporating them in the map. Though this was by no means unexpected, the repeated reminders of China’s claims further deepen India’s concerns over China’s intent.

The timing of the release also acted as a dampener on India’s prospects of engaging with China during a season of intense multilateralism. The map was released after the BRICS summit in Johannesburg and before the ASEAN summit in Jakarta and the G20 summit in New Delhi. Coincidentally, China’s President was present for the BRICS summit but did not turn up for the ASEAN and G20 summits.

India is not the only country whose territorial integrity has been challenged by China’s new map. The map utilises a 10-dash line to demarcate China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, infringing on the sovereignty of the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Brunei, and Malaysia. Earlier, China used to propagate a 9-dash line on its maps to demonstrate its claims over the South China Sea. In the latest map, this has been expanded to a 10-dash line (first introduced in the 2013 map), with the additional line appearing to the east of Taiwan.

This is significant to note as China is increasingly demonstrative of its growing readiness to “reintegrate” the island to the mainland. The extra dash also seems to align China’s claims on the South China Sea with Taiwan’s, as China marches towards its reunification goal.

China’s cartographic incursions extend further. Japan’s Senkaku Islands are labelled in the map as Diaoyu Islands, the Chinese name for the territory. This has been China’s regular practice.

However, what is extremely unusual about the new map is China’s cartographic encroachment into Russia. The map has incorporated into its territory the entire island of Bolshoi Ussuriysky, which is located at the confluence of the Ussuri and Amur rivers along the eastern end of the Russia-China border. The island was partitioned between the two countries in 2008 as part of a boundary agreement in 2005.

  • On August 28, China released the latest version of its standard map, which showed several areas outside the country as part of its territory.
  • China has historical and ongoing border disputes, land and maritime, with almost all its neighbours.
  • China has consistently pushed its version of the border on its maps, wherein both Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh are shown within its borders.

Concerns all around

China’s new map has raised concerns from both its friends and foes in its neighbourhood. The responses from its maritime neighbours in South-East Asia has been predictable. The Philippines has said that the map which overlaps with its claims in the South China Sea (or what the Philippines calls the “West Philippine Sea”) is “illegal and has no basis under international law”.

Vietnam has projected it as a violation of its sovereignty over its maritime areas. Malaysia was the first to respond and has formally protested against the map that shows its maritime zones adjoining the Sabah and Sarawak territories as coming under China’s 10-dash line.

Indonesia has also pointed to the illegality in China’s map portraying the Natuna Islands as falling under the latter’s territory and asked China to adhere to the UNCLOS. Japan has also taken offence to China’s claims in the map on the Senkaku Islands. Taking note of the concerns from China’s neighbourhood, the US has denounced China’s cartographic claims.

This time, however, what has been unusual is the response from those countries in China’s neighbourhood with which it shares very friendly relations. For instance, Russia has taken note of China’s renewed claim over the Bolshoi Ussuriysky Island and emphasised that the claims have been relegated to history through the bilateral boundary agreement.

Nepal has also expressed its uneasiness with the map but not because China has claimed any of Nepal’s territories. Rather, it has not updated the changes in Nepal’s official map since 2020. That year, Nepal issued a new map that showed a part of Indian territory in the India-Nepal-China trijunction—a triangular area connecting the Lipulekh pass, Kalapani, and the Limpiyadhura pass—as part of its own territory. This has not figured in China’s new map, leading to Nepal reiterating its claims on that part of Indian territory.

A Philippine coast guard boat passes by a Japanese coast guard ship during a trilateral drill of the US, Japan, and the Philippines, in Bataan province on June 6. China has maritime territorial disputes with most, if not all, of its neighbours.

A Philippine coast guard boat passes by a Japanese coast guard ship during a trilateral drill of the US, Japan, and the Philippines, in Bataan province on June 6. China has maritime territorial disputes with most, if not all, of its neighbours. | Photo Credit: AARON FAVILA/AP

India has rejected China’s territorial claims and lodged strong diplomatic protests, stating that such claims can only complicate the negotiations under way towards reducing the border tensions remaining from the 2020 standoff. External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar remarked that China’s practice of coming up with such maps reflects an “old habit”. He added: “Just making absurd claims does not make other people’s territories yours.”

China has responded to India’s concerns by playing down the seriousness of the issue. It said that the issuing of standardised maps was an annual routine exercise and asked India to “stay objective and calm, and refrain from over-interpreting the issue”.

Expansionist policy

By diminishing its gravity and imparting on it an appearance of normalcy, China seems to be trying to incrementally bolster its territorial claims. Cartography, in this case, appears to be more of an instrument or a strategy for achieving the goal of territorial expansionism. At the same time, the domestic dimensions of such cartographic exercises also need to be kept in mind. It must be noted here that China held a “national map awareness publicity week” upon the release of the new map, a regular practice during such releases.

Evidently, there is a need for the Communist Party of China (CPC) to keep the nationalist sentiment simmering to maintain its hold over the public. The party has always claimed to be the guarantor of China’s resurrection and resurgence after a “century of humiliation”, and such regular displays of maps are a part of the party’s focus on territorial control and a revanchist approach, helping to ensure domestic support for its continued hold over China. This is especially important in the current situation where China’s economy is headed for trouble and its international reputation has seen a significant decline.

Also Read | Is there a way out of the troubled India-China relationship?

China is raising and persisting with territorial claims with justifications rooted in selective and subjective perceptions of history and civilisation rather than on geographic facts and legal foundations. Therefore, the standardised maps it comes up with can only deepen and widen neighbours’ concerns and mistrust of the country. China is repeatedly demonstrating sheer disregard for both international law on the maritime front and bilateral agreements on the continental front.

It has failed to adhere to UNCLOS; in fact, it has gone against UNCLOS despite being a signatory. When an international arbitration tribunal under the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled against China’s claims in the South China Sea in 2016 on the basis of UNCLOS, China rejected the judgment. China is also resurrecting territorial claims where a formal resolution was achieved, as in the case of the Bolshoi Ussuriysky Island. Technically, the Russia-China border disputes have long been resolved, but China does not think so, given the new maps.

These instances convey an important message to India: even a formal resolution on the border with China may at best be a temporary arrangement, which the Chinese may discard at their convenience.

India needs to be wary of this possibility while thinking long term about its border with China. Military preparedness, infrastructure build-up, and the facilitation and development of population settlements in border areas are essential and the government is taking steps in that direction.

At the same time, there is a need for India to strengthen its cartographic narrative. A cursory glance at images available on the Internet reveals the dearth of maps that accurately depict India’s borders. This is especially the case when it comes to foreign publications.

There is also a dire need to spread awareness among Indian citizens to always use the correct maps of the border areas and avoid those that undermine India’s interests. Since India is not alone in facing China’s cartographic challenge, it is imperative to make common ground with other aggrieved neighbours of China and use maps and place names that are in solidarity with each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and effectively provide a counter narrative to China’s cartographic propaganda.

Anand V. is an Assistant Professor (Senior Scale) and Coordinator of the China Study Centre at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education. The views expressed here are personal.

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